"Trolleys & Electrified Commuter Rail Crossings...." by Harry Garforth

Trolley and Electrified
Commuter Rail Crossings in the
Philadelphia Area - 1930-1940

Trolley companies and railroads had many battles over crossings of their respective lines throughout history. Safety was cited as a chief concern for railroad employees with electrified wires passing over railroad tracks at a relatively low elevation. Track maintenance was also a concern where long freight trains impacted rails at gap points allowing the trolley wheels to pass. In some cases competition with lower cost passenger service was also a concern for railroads.

In Philadelphia, where a large trolley network operated, there were many crossings with railroads, however few were on main lines with higher train speeds. The one crossing which has remained in service at 9th & Main Streets in Darby, allows SEPTA Route 11 to pass over the CSX's Philadelphia Subdivision. This crossing has been redesigned to allow trolley wheels to ride up and over the main line rails requiring no gap in the railroad track.

Other locations where crossings were established usually involved lower speed railroad operations. One example is Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia where several north/south trolley routes bounced across multiple railroad tracks. Derailments and trolley de-wirements were a common occurrence.

As passenger rail networks were formed, it was also common to find trolley crossings near station locations. The Reading Railroad commuter lines radiating out of Reading Terminal included many crossings. North of Spring Garden Street, Reading's trunk line included several streetcar crossings (except Columbia & Lehigh Avenues) until the railroad was elevated above streets as far as Wayne Junction during a seven year period, 1906 to 1913. The Seventeenth Street overhead Bridge was also constructed in the early 1900's.

The elevation of the 9th Street Branch grew out of a partnership with the City of Philadelphia to eliminate at-grade crossings. The grade separation of the City Branch during the 1893-1898 period was another major project undertaken by this partnership. Individual crossing elimination efforts included the Reading's trackage at Wyoming Avenue near Second Street (next to PTC's offices and trolley backshop).

Out on the Reading Railroad branch lines, crossings continue to exist. The Norristown Branch passed one at 22nd Street Station with Route 33, and two more in Norristown with the Schuylkill Valley Traction Company on Dekalb and Main Streets. On other branches, crossings existed at Chelten Avenue in Germantown, Old York Road in Willow Grove and Oxford Road in Fox Chase.

On the PRR side, almost all lines were grade separated with trolley lines with the exception of Dekalb Street in Norristown and Chelten Avenue in Germantown which was eliminated prior to 1918 when the branch was electrified.

When the railroads embarked upon electrification of their Philadelphia commuter lines, an engineering challenge was encountered on how to design an electrified crossing of the trolley's 600 volts DC power lines with the 12,000 volts AC of the railroad lines. Insulation between the two power supplies created dead sections within the crossings requiring both trolleys and electric trains to coast through unpowered.

Surprisingly three of these crossings existed in the Philadelphia area. The Pennsylvania Railroad operated through one at Dekalb Street in Norristown with a Schuylkill Valley Traction Company route. It was short-lived as the PRR electrified the line on July 20, 1930 and the trolley service ended September 10, 1933. The Reading Railroad's electrification of their parallel Norristown Branch began operation on January 30t\ 1933 using a bridge over Dekalb Street.

The second was created when the Reading Railroad electrified the New Hope Branch to Hatboro in 1931. Trolley Route 55 operated up Old York Road from the city to Willow Grove Terminal until 1940 when the service was converted to bus. The nine year duration of the crossing is the longest of the three examples. Trolley Route 6 also served Willow Grove Terminal until 1958, but it crossed over the New Hope Branch at a three level crossing (road, trolley, and railroad) at Moreland Road.

The third trolley crossing was created when the Reading's Norristown branch was electrified. At 22nd Street Station, PTC Route 33 intersected the catenary of the Norristown Branch.

Although the Reading had embarked on major grade separation efforts to eliminate grade crossings on the Norristown Branch at Wissahickon, Manayunk and Norristown before starting electrified service in 1933, the 22nd Street grade separation was not completed until 1938, five years later. Ironically, Route 60 on Allegheny Avenue was not operated across the tracks, but stopped short forcing passengers to walk across the tracks to continue their ride on a shuttle to 35th Street designated Route 60A from 1923 until 1939.

Was there a fourth short lived electrified railroad crossing? A question remains concerning Main Street in Norristown. Did the Reading's electrification of their Norristown Branch extend to Elm Street originally on February 5, 1933, or was this portion deferred until the pending discontinuance of the trolley service on September 10, 1933? An April 24, 1933 Reading Railroad Norristown public timetable indicates that the new Elm Street Station was served by electric trains, providing evidence that a fourth electrified crossing did exist!

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by Harry Garforth


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[added 11/24/16]